No more lands!

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Daniel Fournier smiles and waves at me from behind a neighboring car inside the Mouse Trap-level-convoluted parking lot in front of my South Etobicoke condo complex. I’m sitting in the front seat of Jeff Swaluk’s Nissan Altima waiting for him — he’s just late enough for me to not be frustrated (as usual). Swaluk’s left arm is wrapped from wrist to shoulder in a blue bandage. He’d just been tattoo’d for six hours prior to our trip. He’d proclaimed in an earlier Discord message that he’d be the grumpiest man in Toronto when he picked us up, but I didn’t believe him (I was right).  

It’s roughly 6:20 p.m. on Friday May 17. We’re headed to Syracuse, New York to compete at #SCGNY, a convenient hashtag given how far removed that cesspool is from what you think of when you see the butting letters N and Y. The event is Standard, a format that has recently been infused with roughly a million new planeswalkers which make navigating the metagame unlike any Standard format I’ve ever played before.

At the event I’m planning on playing Esper Midrange the format’s “Jund” deck if you will, Fournier’s playing Izzet Phoenix because he’s addicted to Steam Vents and Swaluk is going to register 20 Mountains. We all have similar opinions on the format. You’ve got to get on the board to attack all these new planeswalkers, you can’t play counterspells because of Teferi, Time Raveler and you’ve got to have a plan for the red deck.

I have a pretty strong bias towards midrange decks in general. I think it’s both a flaw and a strength in my game. Within the context of Standard, midrange is overwhelming likely to be the best place to be by the time a format settles. In fact, I once had a conversation with notable Toronto MTG survivor Paul Dean where he hypothesized that just playing the best midrange deck from beginning to end of every Standard format would yield the highest win-rate. Nevertheless I was playing Esper — despite the hate it was getting on Twitter. Headed into the weekend there was just so much that was unknown. Red had dominated the previous Open and I liked my matchup there, there were a bunch of tribal planeswalker decks that I knew were competitive, but I feared running head first into an army of aggro decks. So that led me to the lukewarm hot pocket that was the Esper Midrange deck Matthew “DilkyXDoo” Dilks and I were tuning:


As with most car trips to Magic tournaments, we spend almost no time talking about Magic. More than anything we talk about what people are tweeting about Magic (no surprise here) and we play what has become affectionately known as Spotify Roulette. I’m sure you can imagine how the game works based on its name. The next three hours were an eclectic blend of Black Metal, Neil Young and synth pop. I’m not exactly sure whether I want to play a second copy of The Elderspell in my sideboard but I’m exactly sure that the Reese’s Peanut Butter cup I got when we stopped for gas wasn’t worth the calories.

Day 1

With the exception of the complimentary breakfast buffet at the Crowne Plaza hotel and the lovely morning walk to the venue, Saturday morning went about as poorly as the first few hours of a Magic tournament can. 

Door art in Syracuse.

I started 1-3 for a number of reasons that I don’t intend on being too specific about if only to save you, the reader, from yet another bad beat story. I wasn’t sharp, I was playing fine but not good enough and I encountered one of Standard midrange deck’s most prominent archetypal weaknesses — it is difficult to protect yourself from flooding.

I played myself into positions where if I drew about average — I’d win. But, there’s a cost associated with playing 26 lands in your deck and I paid that cost over and over. Esper Midrange doesn’t have the luxury of a card like Chemister’s Insight and when things go poorly, you feel that. 

So  I’m in a position every competitive Magic player is familiar with: I have no losses to give if I want to play on Day 2 so I have to play perfectly and draw well. That said, I’m in this mindset a lot earlier than I’d hope. I may or may not have punched a bathroom stall out of frustration.

So there I am trudging. Playing my midrange deck and trying to win on the strength of some over-costed two-power creatures. In round five I finally play another Esper deck and win despite hitting my fifteenth land-drop. Six and seven I beat red decks back to back, I sweat out a bad matchup in Izzet Phoenix in Round 8 and then defeat Azorius Aggro in Round 9. Five in a row and I’m into Day 2 of the relatively small event at 6-3.

***

So you might be wondering: “Why is this guy going to such lengths to explain how he limped into Day 2 of a tournament?”

Well, if I’m being honest, that’s an above average result for me as of late. As we all shuffled out of the convention center and hopped in a Dodge Journey driven by a woman named Julie to a restaurant called Grimaldi’s, Fournier had this comedy bit going where he was congratulating me on Day 2. Now, obviously he was seriously happy for me, but it was also a good joke because the fact of the matter is that I’ve missed Day 2 of four consecutive Opens.

In an escape from this stream of consciousness tournament report I’d like to discuss that a little bit. Not Fournier’s joke (which was admittedly funny) or the series of events that led to my poor results (which are boring), but expectations and how I’ve eventually come to terms with their value.

It’s not a secret that I’m surround by players with much better results than myself. Daniel Fournier, Edgar Magalhaes, Matt Dilks, Daryl Ayers, Paul Dean, Tariq Patel, the list goes on. I keep absurd company, these guys are masters. And of course that’s great, they’ve made me a better player than I ever dreamed of being. And I like to think that I’ve had a small part in some of their successes, spending hundreds of hours on Google Hangouts and in card stores helping them find their fifteenth sideboard card, or testing brews for the Pro Tour. But, the delta between their results and mine looms. It’s larger to me then to them I’m sure of it, and like a small speck on the lens of camera shooting a Youtube video, there’s just no looking away.

With all this in mind, I hold myself to a standard of success at tournaments that I’ve never even achieved before. Missing day 2 is unacceptable, and not competing for Top 8 is a disappointment. It’s just a product of my environment. It’s for this reason these last few events have been some of the hardest of my life, I’ve watched as even players less prepared than myself have succeeded and I’ve failed, over and over. I cheer on my friends while just not measuring up. I find ways to justify my failure, I’ve even belittled others’ accomplishments who I believe showed up unprepared. It’s a miserable cycle. Resentment is the ugliest and most popular emotion among not-good-enough Magic players.

Like everybody, I have days where I want to quit. Rides home from tournaments where I feel impostor syndrome even worse than my last 5-4 performance.

“Is it really worth it If I can’t make consistent deep runs?” we ask ourselves.

For the sake of brevity I’d like to end this section with my resolution, rather than spend too much time on my descent into the kind of player I hate. As I’m sitting at dinner at Grimaldi’s, and the server is more chipper than I’d prefer, and there’s too many side salads, and everyone got a chicken dish, I’m thinking about a hardcore punk song I really like. It’s by a band called Wild Side, they’re from Welland, Ontario and the song’s called No Man’s Hoe. It’s about being free, doing everything you can to live outside the status quo and that being a redeemable path in life. And as I sit at Grimaldi’s and the waiter brings cotton candy as a complimentary dessert and Fournier congratulates me on Day 2 again and the differences between all 14 people at the table couldn’t be more pronounced even to the naked eye — I realize that’s what Magic offers me.

No matter your record after Day 1, you’re free from what’s normal if you take this game seriously. And to a weirdo like me, there’s almost nothing more valuable. I wasn’t performing like I wanted to, but I was performing. It’s like when you play high school sports and you get to skip fifth period to make it to your game 30 minutes away. Playing Magic offers you a pointed, focused escape. A way to never be the same as everybody else.

Somehow that 6-3 felt pretty good in that moment.

Day 2

On the second day of competition at SCG Syracuse I went 3-3. I split four matches against red decks, lost to Izzet Phoenix and beat Zach Allen on Esper Control in a long match to start the day. I finished the event with a 9-6 record and just barely missed min-cash.

Over the course of the eight matches I played against Mono-Red Aggro I lost a minimum of six individual post-board games due to flooding out after stabilizing at more than 20 life. And the strategic purpose of this article is to tell you why that’s my fault, why I could have avoided it and how I’ll be addressing it going forward.

Prior to the tournament I wasn’t doing much losing with Esper Midrange. I would routinely perk up out of a run of eight consecutive match victories to exclaim to the Google Hangouts call I was in, “still haven’t lost.” To which Dilks would respond in jest, “is that another brag?”

I was beating everything. Red in particular. We’d identified early in the week that the planeswalker decks were a real player in the metagame and reacted with The Elderspell accordingly. In the same vein, dealing damage directly to walkers was great and Red was a real metagame player so we added additional copies of Oath of Kaya to our build.

On paper our deck looked nicely positioned against a metagame of Red, White Aggro and Bant Midrange and could fight well against the walker decks and Esper Control after-board.

So, you’re probably wondering, “if you had a good Red matchup why did you struggle against it at the tournament?”

Well here’s the core strategic lesson about Standard Red decks you should take away from this article: They are not burn decks, that’s no longer how Magic cards are designed and you need to adjust to that.

Basilica Bell-Haunt is the kind of card that if you resolved against Modern Burn they’d likely just be dead on the spot. It’s for that reason that people adopted the card in Esper to fight back against the many Lightning Bolt clones that exist in Standard right now. But that’s just not a winning battle. Against Red on the weekend I was boarding out all my Thief of Sanitys, my Lilianas and my Teferi, Time Ravelers. This left my deck as a lean mean life gaining machine. But, one without the ability to really gain traction on the board without Hero of Precinct One on-curve of an early Teferi, Hero of Dominaria. As I was getting leaner, they were going bigger and I would just get out hay maker’d every game and flood out — and it was my fault.

What’s more is that I already had the solution to this problem right in front of me.

Edgar Magalhaes had already spent the better part of the last year preaching the gospel of Vona, Butcher of Magan in Standard and all I had to do was look at what was directly in front of me and make an adjustment. You see, this isn’t just a lesson to be learned about this Standard format. This is something you should apply to midrange deckbuilding in Standard almost ad nauseum. They no longer print the kind of efficient cards that go to the dome they used to like Lightning Bolt or Lava Spike. What they do instead is allow aggressive decks to play to the board more in the mid-game. We fight over Experimental Frenzy or last format’s Chandra, Torch of Defiance rather than over life totals.

This is just the way Standard is now. Games go long, and cards like Vraska’s Contempt, Despark, Vona and even to a lesser extent Teferi, Time Raveler which have modal application increase in stock quite a bit.

What my deck was missing against aggressive decks this weekend was a plan to win the game post-board and that was a failure in deckbuilding that led to me spinning my tires and flooding-out at 25 life multiple times. I failed. Don’t be like me. If I had just picked up on this two days earlier I can almost guarantee I would have won at least two extra matches at the event.

Here’s the Esper Hero deck I like going forward:


Before I go into further detail on what I’ve changed I’d like to give credit where credit is due. Right around the time that Esper was getting crushed at the Open Brian Braun-Duin was reaching Rank 1 on the Mythic ladder with his updated version. I bring this up because a lot of the changes he made mirror the way I felt about the list late in Day 2 of Syracuse. He’s got more catch-all answers and his deck does a much better job of playing to the board than the deck I played. I’ve been watching BBD play the deck since the beginning of the format and his stream has been a great resource for testing this Standard format.

Most of what you see above may look like cosmetic changes but I do think this list is drastically different than what I played at the Open. This decklist asks almost nothing of you. All of the cards are easy to cast and require almost no setup to be impactful. I think in a format with this many powerful cards that replace themselves, you need to set up your deck to trade cardboard for cardboard as often as possible. That’s what I’m trying to do here.

Last bit on the changes: you’ll notice the two copies of Ugin, the Ineffable in my maindeck above. These are just a concession to the format moving so far towards planeswalkers and away from creatures. Lilly was actually great in Syracuse I just agree with BBD that you need as many answers to PWs in the format now as you can get your hands on. 

***

It’s Sunday May 19 and we just pulled out of our street-side park spot outside of Dinosaur Barbecue. For some reason all weekend when we’d stop and get out of the car I’d run up in front of everyone and jump and click my heels together because I thought it was funny, and the recurring joke was fun. Some passerby with his girlfriend instructed me that if I was going to do this I should try hard — I don’t like him very much.

On the way home we don’t pay Spotify Roulette. The weather outside was thick and heavy. It was raining in short bursts of torrential downpour like it does every year around this time when it gets really warm for the first time in Ontario. I don’t know about you, but to me it really feels like there’s no such thing as good weather when you’re riding back home after a Magic tournament.

Just a lot of rain, somebody else’s favourite music and that feeling that you’re sinking through the front seat, trying to figure out where you went wrong and how to build your deck for the next tournament.

Swaluk drops me off at around 11 p.m. and tomorrow’s a holiday so I’m not looking to go to bed any time soon. I heat up some three-day-old pizza and turn my computer on. Dilks and Edgar are already in a Hangouts call preparing for their Modern event in Louisville next weekend. My streak of missing Day 2 is over.

I click on the five-pronged Mythic orange icon on my task bar that represents Magic Online and Open the Modern section of my decklists tab.

I guess it’s time to start a new kind of streak.